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Bruce Arians: ‘Unacceptable’ drops by running backs must stop

Tom Brady throws a lot of passes to his backs, but Ronald Jones and several others can't hang on Sunday in training camp.
Dare Ogunbowale, who led all Bucs running backs last season with 35 receptions, has had the surest hands in training camp.
Dare Ogunbowale, who led all Bucs running backs last season with 35 receptions, has had the surest hands in training camp. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 23, 2020|Updated Aug. 23, 2020

TAMPA — Bad weather did not chase the Bucs indoors Sunday, but the big drops started falling during warmups and continued throughout practice. The running backs — particularly Ronald Jones — had trouble holding on to Tom Brady’s passes.

Jones had muffed what should have been two routine catches during third-down situations, and LeSean McCoy butterfingered one pass as well. Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn wasn’t sure-handed in warmups.

Considering the frequency Brady likes to throw to his running backs — he has completed more than 100 passes to that position in each of the past three seasons — Brady still needs to develop trust in their ability to execute in the passing game.

“I didn’t think our running backs were particularly sharp catching the ball today and it started in warmups,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We addressed it after practice, and everybody has got to be ready to go … they need to catch them. It’s unacceptable.”

Jones, 23, was targeted 40 times last season and caught 31 passes for 309 yards, most coming in the screen game. He still is relatively new to running option routes and identifying leverage in man coverage. He also fights his hands at times and his confidence did not carry him Sunday.

Related: Bucs linebacker Lavonte David has speed to burn, respect to earn

Most of the time, the lack of proper hand placement for Jones is the issue, something he has worked hard on since his rookie year with running backs coach Todd McNair.

“First of all, it’s unacceptable. You’ve got to catch the football,” McNair said. “You constantly have to work at it. His thing has always been, I kind of identified when I got here, is hand placement. The one we threw to him today, he whipped around, and sometimes backs, you think you have time, you’re last in the progression, you get around and the ball is hot on you. And he had both palms up. You can’t catch the ball with both palms up. So it always starts and ends with him with hand placement and also the readiness of expecting, you’ve got to run your route with the expectation that the ball is coming when you look up.”

McCoy, 32, has 503 career receptions for 3,797 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career. He would stand to be the most accomplished running back in the passing game but still is working himself into shape.

“A guy like Shady, 12 years in, you kind of know what he is and who he is,” said McNair, who tried to recruit McCoy to Southern Cal.

Perhaps the most consistent pass catcher in the backfield has been Dare Ogunbowale, who led all Bucs running backs last season with 35 receptions (for 286 yards and no scores). Ogunbowale spent a lot of time with Brady working out at Berkeley Prep this summer.

“It’s definitely important, of course, just to have that trust from your quarterback in general,” Ogunbowale said. “Make sure we catch the ball, make sure we make the right read, make sure you’re there and available for him to check the ball down to us.

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Ogunbowale has continued to compete and played well despite the Bucs drafting Vanderbilt running bac Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round and signing McCoy.

“That’s just kind of been the story of my career,’' Ogunbowale said. “I’ve always been in competition. Us bringing in more running backs to compete with, I already had competition on my mind.’'

Related: Three-headed monster patrols the skies for Bucs’ defense

McNair said he will work with Jones and his other running backs to get back on track.

“They were all off (Saturday). You’ve got to get back and get your mind locked in and refocus and get going,” McNair said. “I don’t expect it will be a problem. (Jones) will come back and he’ll be locked in. He’s got some pride about his progress that he’s making and I expect him to come out and have a strong practice.”

McNair knows what it’s like to suddenly find the stakes of the entire team raised by the addition of an iconic quarterback. He played for Kansas City when 49ers quarterback Joe Montana joined the Chiefs in 1993.

“I think the whole team probably has the whole sense of urgency,” McNair said. “I can speak kind of from experience, because in Kansas City Joe Montana came late. It’s like a whole different feel, the accountability that you put on yourself and others, with a guy with that status, a player with that type of ability, your protections have got to be on, you don’t want to be the one to get him hit, and ball out, and God forbid something happen to him on your account. That’s a high level of accountability.

“You know the ball is coming, because he’s been a quarterback who throws to his running backs a lot. It’s a high sense of urgency … and more accountability for sure.”

Edwards has eye issue

Safety Mike Edwards did not practice Sunday due to an eye infection, Arians said. He was replaced with the first group by rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., who had some pass breakups.

“You can’t stay out of practice very long or you’re going to get beat out by him,” Arians said of Winfield Jr. ‘‘He’s got an eye infection. He’s got some sensitivity to light. Hopefully, he’ll back out there quick.”

Play of the day

Chris Godwin continues to improve his chemistry with Brady and made an acrobatic adjustment to a pass over his wrong shoulder, beating cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting for a touchdown in an end-of-the-game situation.

The play drew a lot of yelps and a big hug from Brady.

‘‘Chris is really shifty,‘' Murphy-Bunting said. “A lot of people probably don’t think so because he’s so big (6-1, 209 pounds). ... He uses his speed very wisely, because he can beat you over the top. But he’s a very precise route runner with a wide catch radius. You can think you have him covered for 10 yards, and he gets open and makes the catch.”

Praise for Juice

Tight end O.J. Howard looks and is performing like a new player. On Sunday, he made several highlight-reel catches from Brady, and his confidence is soaring.

‘‘He’s had a great camp,” Arians said. “He came back in great mental shape and physical shape. He’s making plays every day, so yeah. I can’t say enough about him right now.”

Two headed to injured reserve

The Bucs placed running back T.J. Logan and receiver John Franklin on injured reserve Sunday. Both suffered knee injuries in practice. Logan injured the patellar tendon in his right knee when he was pulled down by linebacker Quinton Bell Thursday. Franklin was injured during one-on-one passing drills Friday.

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